Celtic Illumination, part 220, Constable country.
You often hear people say that they remember exactly where they were when a certain world event happened, such as the twin towers, or Diana’s death, or the shooting of JFK. I’m not one of them. What I can do is recall the minutiae of life. For example I could tell you that on the seventeenth of April, nineteen eighty five, at twenty three minutes past one in the afternoon, I was stood standing, in the flight planning office at RAF Wattisham, talking to Tim Lort on the telephone. Impressed? You should be, well; not really. I was on the telephone, I was in flight planning and I was talking to Tim. Thing is I was staring blankly out through the windows when I noticed a Hawk aircraft line up for take-off.
There was nothing strange about this; a number of Hawks with their students had come down from Valley to make use of the better weather. One student had been sent out on a solo sortie. He had been expecting to have an instructor with him but the plan had changed. As the jet rolled forward for take-off the wind caught the cockpit, which the pilot had forgotten to close properly and as he lifted off, the canopy was ripped from the aircraft. Being so close to the ground, and inexperienced, the poor fellow thought he had no control of the aircraft and banged out. Now this was different, you don’t usually see pilots ejecting on take-off, it was a first for me. Another thing you don’t see is a pilotless aircraft flying around the airfield wondering where it was going to land. Eventually it saw a nice picture postcard, thatched, cottage in the village of Nedging Tye and parked up, nose first through the roof
By the way don’t go blaming the young fellow for being a student, some of the more experienced pilots made mistakes too. One exercise, about the third day, I see we are back to the bible again, when everyone had really had enough and wanted to go home. It was dark, the weather was foul, and we were under attack, again. Rather than the old system of an aircraft flying over the base and simulating an attack they would actually send the SAS to attack us. It was interesting to watch. Being in air traffic we knew who was coming, we knew when they were coming and we even knew why they were coming. A Hercules would contact us on the approach frequency and request permission to come in on an attack run.
We might know what was about to happen but the other poor sods all around the station would not be aware. The Hercules would come in slow and low. It would touch down at the end of the runway and the back door would already be open. It would slow down, almost stopping, as men poured out of the rear of the aircraft, sometimes on motorcycles, and head for their predetermined targets. As you try to follow them in the darkness the aircraft is now airborne again. Because you have turned to check on the aircraft getting airborne, by the time you turn back to watch the attack force, they had been swallowed up with the foul weather and darkness.
There will now follow a spate of shootings and explosions which will draw and keep your attention. There will be some form of response from the defence units on base but by the time they have organised themselves and are ready to engage, the SAS are already piling back in to the Hercules, that has flown around, landed, and is about to disappear back into the darkness again. One exercise a liaison team from the SAS came up to have a chat about the station and what departments we would like tested. We were standing in air operations discussing various buildings on base which we would like them to attack. I was wondering if I could get them to kill Joe Pearson for me, maybe one or two others while they were at it. Where the SAS were concerned I was only cleared to kill sandbags if you remember.
One of the operations officers, Martin Loveridge, then rather jokingly states that there was no point in them attacking air operations as we were well protected and secure. I think the SAS guy in charge must have been on 92 Squadron at some point in time, for he took that statement as a challenge. We didn’t know it at the time but he certainly did. It was unusual for any other aircraft to accompany the Hercules on their attacks but this time a helicopter came in. It got very noisy in air traffic because the helicopter flew straight toward us and as we all thought why the hell is he hovering over operations, we saw some fellows abseil out of the chopper and plummet straight down and through the Perspex skylights in the air operations roof.
Martin Loveridge was not impressed to see an SAS guy spinning around on a rope in front of him shouting, “Bang, bang, you’re fecking dead.” I volunteered to be dead once. We were all milling about when someone came in and asked for volunteers. We all had a tag tied to our uniform and were laid out between two hangers. Written on the tag was a list of our supposed injuries. The scenario was that a bomb had exploded and the guys running the exercise would now stand back and see how the response teams would react. So, if you would imagine twenty five or thirty blokes lying on the ground. The response teams had been informed and the stopwatches are ticking when a new air traffic controller gingerly steps his way across the bodies, saying ‘Excuse me, pardon me, excuse me please’ as he stepped over the casualties on his way to air traffic control. It didn’t occur to him that he should have reported the incident or tried to help someone.
We got some negative feedback for that mistake. But the one mistake that makes the hair stand up on the back of most people’s necks, was the time we were approaching the end of an exercise. Most people were tired and weary, the weather was foul, it was still dark and two phantoms were coming in for landing. Theoretically the station had been blown to bits and we were operating from standby locations. It was very weird as the lead pilot kept telling us how close he was to the airfield. We couldn’t see him. He even told us that he was lined up on the runway lights and was coming in to land. We still couldn’t see him, because the moment we could see him we were going to switch on the landing lights.
Now I know that most air traffickers are useless but it took a few seconds before some bright spark realised that the pilot should not be able to line up on the landing lights, never mind see them, because we hadn’t switched them on yet. It was as the pilot noticed the road signs saying, ‘Welcome to Stowmarket’ that they realised this wasn’t an airfield they were about to land on but the main street in a medium sized country town in Suffolk. This is when air traffic started to yell at them that they should abort the landing. The exercise was abandoned, not for safety reasons, but because we needed everyone to begin answering telephones as the good people of Stowmarket were telephoning the station wanting to know why two phantoms were flying down their main street, after all, the shops were shut. I think we got away with it as we said it wasn’t us, it was the Americans.
Sorry about that, I was using my remarkable powers of recall and had begun to tell you what Tim and I were talking about on the telephone on the seventeenth of April nineteen eighty five, at twenty three minutes past one in the afternoon, when you made me get all side tracked. So if you will behave yourselves I’ll do that right now. Tim was getting married, to a girl, of the female persuasion. To prove just how brave he was, despite the fact that he was serving with the commandos, he was inviting a half dozen of us reprobates to the event. It was to be held at his family home in Tenby in South Welsh Wales. So what do you think, take half a dozen nut cases from Watton, now add half a dozen Royal Naval and Marine Commando officers and steep them all in far too much booze. What is it they say, light the fuse and withdraw to a place of safety, what could possibly go wrong?